Agricultural Revolution -- Ecology and Food Production in
West Africa", by Paul
Richards. Published by Hutchison University
Library, London, 192pp.
£7.50 ISBN 0 09 161320 5
Dr Richards holds that
agricultural research in developing countries is
generally out of touch with the needs of the majority of
can do more harm than good. While not an original view, it's
to hear it from an agricultural researcher.
Richards delivers a damning critique of the agricultural
whole approach to development: ethnocentric bias, elitism,
the inappropriateness of temperate-region techniques to the
ignorance or disregard of local ecological and sociological
inadequate field research and a lack of feedback.
All lead to hopelessly inappropriate research goals or,
preconceived and simplistic ideals disregarding complex and
ecological interactions, with disastrous results.
The ill-founded attempt to eradicate tsetse fly so that
farms (the European model) could replace the "wasteful" and
shifting agriculture preferred by peasant smallholders is a
point, and Richards provides a good analysis of this.
Similarly, the drive to mechanize has proved an expensive
elephant, and, often, so has irrigation -- one scheme saw
declining to a third of the levels the peasants had achieved
scheme was built.
Richards casts serious doubt on the prospects of current
initiatives such as the attempts to impose an Asian-style
Revolution on West Africa, with its "standard packages" of
high-yielding (or rather high-response) varieties plus
research is even more centralized, even less concerned with
conditions, and his analysis helps to explain why the scheme
so little ground.
His main thrust, however, is not merely a negative criticism
scientific establishment, but rather that the capabilities
peasants themselves have been grossly underrated.
He shows them to be ecologically aware, with sound reasons
of their techniques, and much given to experiment and
they have been ahead of the scientists: Richards details
where scientific studies have "re-invented" techniques
widespread among peasants.
He presents a convincing case that, viewed in its full
context, shifting cultivation, rather than a primitive stage
agricultural development and thus in dire need of
be the best option for farmers with an excess of land and a
The cultivators' "sloppy" land clearance emerges as an
device, while their "undisciplined" and "unhygienic"
practises (from 30 to 60 different crops per farm, with
variations) spread the risk of failure and confer benefits
pest-resistance, soil conservation, a varied diet and,
productive efficiency, without the insoluble labour
the more specialized approach the researchers generally
The shifting system itself is ecologically educational in
farmers to a variety of conditions -- demonstrated in the
adapt themselves to the tropical environment, so different
in its local
variations and ecological complexity from the temperate
researchers are more used to.
Lacking the population pressure and labour resources behind,
Asia's terracing and irrigation systems, West African
with nature, capitalizing on local diversity rather than
impose greater uniformity and control on the farming
Two case studies corroborate Richards' view that the
ecological sense and innovative talents are "one of the most
significant of rural Africa's resources", which development
educational agencies must learn to tap.
However, poor communications in the rural hinterland
"invisibilility" of peasant initiative -- and the peasants
from long experience of taxes, demanding politicians and
relations with the towns, often mislead outsiders about
productivity, preferring the low profile of a "subsistence
Farmers are thus excluded from the process of research
design, find the
results irrelevant to their problems and continue to "rely
on their own
systems of knowledge and research procedures -- systems and
of which scientists in the 'formal' sector are often quite
best the two systems pass each other like ships in the
night. At worst
they duplicate effort, or compete destructively."
It is possible that Richards errs in the opposite direction
peers in his admiration for the peasants. For instance, a
criticism of the shifting cultivators' "slash-and-burn"
methods is that
they fail to return the organic matter to the soil, and
Richards is not
entirely convincing in countering this.
He seems to see humus merely as a provider of nutrients for
growth, ignoring its considerable role in increasing the
water retention of soils, both problems the peasants
He argues that composting is too slow and laborious, but
compost can be produced in a few weeks in tropical
farmers leave cut brush for several weeks to dry before
less laborious methods should not be beyond the capacities
inventive farmers, accustomed to integrating nature's
diversity and to
smoothing out labour needs. Composting would also avoid the
vulnerability of the "burn" to early rains.
Richards offers many useful suggestions, first among which
abandon the "top-down" approach. One of the best sections of
is his model Field Survey, a thoughtful, practical and
approach to how development should be tackled if projects
are not only
to "work" but to provide satisfactory answers to the
benefits?" and "at whose expense?".
He advocates "sideways extension" -- formal-sector
spreading the best local agricultural innovations -- and
research", where problem definition and much of the research
itself are handled by groups of farmers, with scientists
collaborators and consultants. The training of investigators
involve far more fieldwork and participation if they are to
more useful role of "catalysts and facilitators" rather than
Richards is not blind to the obstacles on the path he
proposes, but it
is the correct one if real development is to take place.